Book review: The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton

There are few truly universal books on behavioural science: like most of the others, this one has a particular reader in mind. Richard's reader works in advertising, and it must be a rare advertising executive who still hasn't heard of behavioural economics. Richard therefore heads straight into the meat of the book with little beating around the rational-agent bush. A couple of connected anecdotes start us off and we quickly get to the first of 25 chapters, each on a single bias, that make up the body of the text.

The book is very readable, and even if you already know what the fundamental attribution error, the pratfall effect and Veblen goods are, you'll probably still enjoy the stories and quotes that illustrate them. I hadn't heard of some of the experiments and anecdotes that Rich discusses - and he and his colleagues have carried out many of their own original tests - so even as a professional in the field there is much here that's worthwhile.

Structuring a book around a list of biases has the advantage of user friendliness. Each chunk is self-contained and easy to get your head around; you can dip in and read a chapter or two without needing to remember a broader framework. The natural counterpart of this is that approach can feel a little shallow. If you're already familiar with the discipline you may feel there's not much to learn from another definition of the availability bias. And inevitably several of the "biases" are not really biases: the replication crisis and "habit" are not biases, though these chapters are as useful as any of the others. Another minor drawback of this approach: because the chapters are designed to be read individually, some of the same quotes show up more than once - ever so slightly jarring if you're reading it all the way through.

The most useful contribution of the book is the original - and very good - set of practical tips at the end of each chapter. If you do work in advertising or marketing there will be a lot to get your teeth into. The first chapter alone gave me three or four ideas that I could see myself applying in the near future. Richard has a good understanding of the culture of advertising, and the book may well help people in ad agencies - or the advertising function of large companies - persuade their colleagues of the efficacy of behavioural principles.

Those in other fields may find less the book less directly practical, but there will probably be something to stimulate you in most chapters. And you can always get good stuff by following Richard on Twitter.

p.s. Full disclosure: Richard interviewed me when writing the book and you'll see some of what we discussed reflected in the pricing chapters.

Richard in conversation with Rory Sutherland at the launch of the book


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